Diehard fans of Ghost in the Shell, in its original Japanese manga form or its feature-length anime and follow-ups, will have their own opinions of this slick Hollywood adaptation. Hormonal boys and young men will be rewarded early on with lingering views of a seemingly-naked Scarlett Johansson. Never mind that her body isn’t real (in the context of the story) or that she’s actually wearing a skin-tight body suit.

As it turns out, nearly everything about this movie is surface-thin. Johansson plays Major, a cybernetic character who is supposedly the first of her kind: a human brain and soul (or “ghost”) melded onto a robotic body by sympathetic scientist Juliette Binoche. Major works for Section 9, an elite crime-fighting force in a city of the future, and is highly valued by her boss. But the manufacturer responsible for creating this robotic/human hybrid has an agenda of his own and doesn’t intend a government agency to stand in his way.

Johansson is well-cast as Major, and not just because of her physicality. She conveys the angst her character suffers from memory blips of her human past…snippets of how she was separated from her parents and nearly drowned. Her costars make solid impressions, as well, including her reliable teammate Pilou Asbaek and a nefarious hacker played by Michael Carmen Pitt.

Nothing is quite as it seems in this future world, an overwhelming cityscape where skyscrapers are dominated by animated advertising holograms. But with each incident and sidebar we find echoes of all-too-familiar stories, not just from the world of science-fiction. From the machinations of a corporate villain to the surrender of a scientist to pressures from a power-hungry funder, Ghost in the Shell is undone by shopworn storytelling tropes.

I don’t mean to be dismissive of a film that shows so much obvious effort and visual imagination, but after a while I got bored. All that razzle-dazzle onscreen, orchestrated by director Rupert Sanders and a huge team of collaborators, can’t compensate for an utterly predictable story. Johansson’s presence and the elaborate production design may be enough for some viewers but I’m afraid it left me cold.


Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024